Along for the Ride by Henry Zeybel

Retired USAF Lt. Col. Henry Zeybel wrote and published three novels in the 1980s about SAC B-47 operations during the Cold War, F-4 Phantom missions over North Vietnam, and AC-130 Spectre gunship operations during the Vietnam War. He served in the war as a navigator on USAF C-130 Hercules “Trash Haulers” in 1967-68, as a sensor operator on AC-130 Spectre gunships in 1970-71, and as a Special Ops adviser in 1972-73.

Now comes Hank Zeybel’s first book of nonfiction, Along for the Ride: Navigating Through the Cold War, Vietnam, Laos & More (Casemate, 288 pp. $34.95), a tour de force of an autobiography. The book is filled with captivating and introspective looks at every part of Zeybel’s life, primarily his military career, growing up in Pittsburgh, and the eventful forty-plus years since he retired from the Air Force in 1976.

The most vivid writing comes in the sections—including the riveting opening chapter, “Downtown Tchepone”—in which Zeybel takes the reader along with him inside the Spectre gunships he crewed on during his second tour of duty. The depictions of the 13-man crew dodging surface-to-air missiles over the Ho Chi Minh Trail stand among the most evocative air-combat writing in the Vietnam War literary canon.

Zeybel’s sections on the 775 combat support sorties he flew inside C-130 Hercules transports during his first tour come in a close second in the verisimilitude department. We get many evocations of what it was like, as he puts it, “transporting the alive, wounded, and dead; relocating villagers; and performing an endless list of mundane tasks.”

Zeybel deftly weaves his life story into the narrative, flashing back and forth to events from his childhood in the 1940s. He grew up the son of a sports-loving Pittsburgh Press journalist father and a stay-at-home mother, whom he pithily describes as “Wife. Mother. Homemaker. Excellent cook…. Tutor. Disciplinarian…. Avid reader of contemporary novels. Crossword puzzle pro.” He graduated from high school in 1951, from Penn State in 1955, and joined the U.S. Air Force via ROTC.

There’s also great descriptive writing about the decades following his retirement from the Air Force in 1976. That includes his many writing assignments for National Defense, Eagle, and Airpower magazines. And his (mostly) rewarding work tutoring football players and other athletes at the University of Texas at Austin where he has lived for decades.

A Spectre at Thailand’s Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base during the Vietnam War

The book also is filled with lots of clever, caustic prose. Such as:

  • On Air Force office duties: “The design of military force is to prosecute war and to defeat the enemy on a given spot; in comparison, the outcomes of conferences, staff meetings, and power point presentations are ethereal and not worth a half-hearted fuck.” (Did I mention that Zeybel drops more than a few dozen F-bombs in the book?)
  • On a trigger-happy Spectre gunship pilot: “He blasted away as if trying to keep time to an album titled Jimi Hendrix Goes Completely Fucking Nuts.”
  • On the first time he came face to face with dead American troops as he and his crew loaded 22 body bags into their C-130: “Describing the setting as ‘dank’ would be a compliment to the atmosphere.”

Hank Zeybel has written more than 300 book reviews for Books in Review II since October 2014. He’s still regularly producing first-rate reviews for us today, in his 89th year.

–Marc Leepson

A version of the review appeared in the September/October print and online editions of The VVA Veteran.